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Jun 16, 2009 | 21:23 GMT

6 mins read

Iran: Twitter, Cyberwarfare and Opposition Movements

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Image
Summary
New online social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook have been an important part of developing events in Iran in the wake of the disputed presidential election. The opposition movement has successfully leveraged these and other tools to further its own goals, with implications far beyond Tehran.
One of the few ways to get up-to-date intelligence out of Iran in the wake of the controversial presidential election has been through a social networking service known as Twitter. Cell phones, text messaging and e-mail — as well as social networking Web sites like Facebook — have also played a role in allowing tech-savvy Iranians to coordinate opposition efforts and communicate with the outside world. The emerging role of these communications tools in Iran, as well as their implications far beyond Iran, warrants closer examination. In Iran, text-messaging services, a key organizational tool for the opposition, began to shut down early on June 12, before polls opened that day. At about the same time, according to some reports, Facebook and the opposition's political Web sites went down or were blocked. Claims have been widespread that the government was responsible for shutting down these services and sites, and their functionality has been intermittent ever since. In the past, the Iranian government is believed to have done the same thing ahead of student protests. From 2005 to 2008, mobile phone subscriptions in Iran grew by more than 375 percent. By 2008, six of every 10 Iranians were mobile subscribers. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has reportedly considered this expansion a top priority, with a focus on text messaging and data services. In 2008, Iran had more personal computers (143 per 1,000 people) and Internet users (35 per 100 people) than Greece. It remains unclear to what extent government entities loyal to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad preemptively shut down services and to what extent the unprecedented traffic on servers and Internet connections in Iran — especially as the opposition rallied over the weekend — simply overwhelmed capacity (this traffic would have included outsiders accessing Iranian content in unprecedented numbers). Communications disruptions have been intermittent and spread over various channels, which does not necessarily suggest an institutional across-the-board crackdown. Iran's Internet infrastructure — and connections to the outside world — is highly centralized and fairly crude. The connections are structurally prone to instability, which has indeed been high since the election. In addition, cyberattacks have reportedly occurred, including some thought to have been distributed denial-of-service assaults, attacks which Twitter users in Iran have feared may be impeding their access to what limited bandwidth remains, and calls have gone out from some users — purportedly from within Iran — to halt such attacks. The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad obviously is not going to admit to shutting down or blocking services — whether it did so or not. This alone helps serve the interests of the opposition, which would certainly have the world believe that Ahmadinejad's government is responsible. So too would other opponents of the regime living in exile. Both groups have a strong interest in spreading information and disinformation that would further delegitimize the regime. In any case, governments from Caracas to Cairo are watching events unfold in Iran closely — and anxiously. An opposition movement has successfully mobilized technology to generate massive international attention to their claims, which essentially question what appears to have been a landslide vote in favor of the incumbent. As STRATFOR has already pointed out, Ahmadinejad's victory is not unexpected; he enjoys considerable support despite widespread Western perceptions to the contrary (though some fraud could well have taken place, and the landslide has raised additional questions among observers). But text messaging, "tweets" (messages sent on Twitter), Flickr (a photo sharing Web site), Facebook and more traditional forms of communication have created the perception among many in the West that the Iranian presidential election was fraudulent. No numbers or meaningful evidence to bear this out have come to light (though Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered the Guardian Council to review claims of voter fraud, and electoral data is reportedly being kept secret). In any case, Ahmadinejad is extremely unlikely to be removed from power by an annulment of the results. But a tech-savvy group of opposition supporters have successfully used Western tools to shape popular Western perceptions. Whether they are, indeed, the victims of massive voter fraud or whether they are a minority accurately depicted by the official election results is somewhat irrelevant to this analysis. While quantitative measures do indeed matter, the tools they have used and the manner in which they have used them are accessible to various opposition groups around the world, and the connections they facilitate help even disparate and relatively small opposition groups communicate and operate effectively. Indeed, this is not even the first time these tools have been used to such effect. In April, Moldovan youths staged anti-communist protests primarily through Twitter and the use of text messaging — and these same technologies have played a role in recent unrest across Europe. China blocked Twitter at the beginning of the month, as the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown approached>. Facebook and the Craigslist classifieds Web site have become staples of the Venezuelan opposition for organizing and consolidating opposition efforts. Indeed, the U.S. Department of State and Voice of America are both reportedly working with Twitter and other social networking sites in order to ensure that users in Iran have full access. In politically and ideologically charged situations — especially crises like the current one in Tehran where traditional news media have been suppressed or otherwise constrained from reporting freely (foreign news agencies were banned from covering demonstrations) — small groups now potentially have the tools to communicate and coordinate their activities as well as attempt to meaningfully manipulate international perceptions. And in the absence of information, tweets from apparently legitimate sources (people can easily adjust their Twitter settings to show themselves as being physically in Tehran no matter where they tweet from) can suddenly end up on major news networks. On June 16, a call went out for outsiders to change their Twitter location and time zone to match Tehran in order to help conceal and shield users actually in Tehran from internal security efforts to pinpoint them through their tweets. The bottom line is that though the Internet can indeed be blocked for days on end, it is difficult for governments to control over the long term. The management of Internet access – be it ruthlessly and effectively repressive or ad hoc and ineffective – becomes increasingly important in domestic political crises. And because youth groups may well have the tech-savvy edge, they may have the wherewithal to both convey and manipulate the situation to their advantage. In an intelligence vacuum, it is easy to get caught up in whatever information presents itself — especially if it is in a format that is both accessible and familiar. However, considering that jihadists use the Internet to spread their own message, share new tactics and communicate, it is important to remember that the use of Western technologies hardly entails a belief in Western ideologies.

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